Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: The introduction of direct rule 'lite' won't reflect well on anyone

By Suzanne Breen

For the first time in over a decade, a budget for Northern Ireland is being set at Westminster.

No matter how the Government downplays the situation, it represents a massive political failure.

The credibility of the Stormont institutions which was never high, is now at rock bottom in the public's eyes.

And for all the extensive debate over the budget in the House of Commons, the one question on the streets will be: "Are they still paying the MLAs?"

The Secretary of State batted the issue down the road yesterday by announcing that former clerk of the Assembly Trevor Reaney would assess the matter and report back to him next month.

But by opting for someone who was a key civil servant at Stormont, Mr Brokenshire is perhaps indicating that he won't be taking radical action on salaries.

The pay issue is of far more importance to DUP MLAs than to their Sinn Fein counterparts who are accustomed to an industrial wage and a political ideology which has majored on self-sacrifice.

Arlene Foster's party will be using every inch of its Westminster clout to prevent Tory austerity affecting its politicians.

Last time round when the institutions were suspended for almost five years, MLAs' pay was cut by 30%.

But public disillusionment is far greater now and the tolerance of voters across the political spectrum will be severely tested if politicians' generous pay continues while the institutions are moth-balled. That, however, is the least of Mr Brokenshire's problems.

While direct rule 'lite' can carry us to Christmas, the Government sooner or later will have to appoint London ministers - the last thing it wants to do as the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaches.

There has been speculation about a shadow Assembly but it's unlikely Sinn Fein would go for that sort of sham Stormont.

Despite putting a brave face on it, yesterday was a far better day for the DUP than for the Shinners who appear to have no strategy. Their way forward isn't clear.

Opinion polls in the South indicate a drop in support for Sinn Fein and, at the moment, neither Fianna Fail nor Fine Gael are showing any interest in Gerry Adams' party as junior coalition partners.

Republicans may hope for a Corbyn government but, if it ever even happens, that could be years away.

Yet the Sinn Fein leadership has obviously decided that remaining outside Stormont is to its advantage.

Administering Tory cuts and sharing power with the DUP while potentially explosive revelations could be made at the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive risks losing support with its base.

Republican grassroots' loyalty has already been severely tested in recent years.

Holding the balance of power at Westminster and seeing the first tranche of its £1 bn funding package come through, the DUP is in a far more comfortable position.

But the likely return of full-blown direct rule and the increasing reality that the devolution project has failed is hardly a great long-term victory for Northern Ireland's main unionist party either.

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